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Monday, May 11, 2015

April 2015 Review Roundup

It's time once again to review a sampling of the books and films I enjoyed (or not) last month.

Having read Ursula K. LeGuin's most famous works earlier this year, I decided to finish off her Hainish cycle by reading the works that bookend the series, including her first three novels (Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions) and the last novel of the cycle, The Telling. While none of these books match the power and beauty of The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, they remain solid SF, and really, middling LeGuin is better than the best work of many of her peers. I quite enjoy how LeGuin doesn't clutter her stories with exposition or world-building; she has a point to make, and she makes it succinctly in each work, leaving readers to fill in the blanks about her setting and its internal chronology. Of the four LeGuin works I read in April, City of Illusions is the most interesting; it's the only Hainish novel set on Earth, and within its pages LeGuin offers a mysterious, brooding man-out-of-place tale against the backdrop of a scary but ultimately fleeting dystopia.

I had high hopes for Mad Skills by Walter Greatshell; it's the story of a young woman subjected to an experimental procedure that gives her amazing new mental and physical capabilities. It's a well-worn premise, but the opening chapters promised - or seemed to promise - a fresh new take on an old idea. But about halfway through the book it becomes clear that Greatshell didn't know where to take his story, and as a result it meanders to a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion.

Joe Haldeman's The Hemingway Hoax follows a similar pattern; he sets up an interesting premise only to have it falter near the end. But Haldeman is more skilled than Greatshell, and the novel holds up most of the way through, and even the ending isn't bad so much as slightly underwhelming for Haldeman, who's usually dependably excellent.

Thanks to a hand-me-down from Sean, I read Connie Willis' Blackout last month. I love Willis' work, but in this case she really should have curbed her impulse to pad out one novel into two (Blackout is followed by All Clear, which I finished in May). The latest in Willis' loosely-tied stories of time-travelling Oxford historians, Blackout depicts three such historians lost in London during the blitz, and all the misadventures they suffer trying to get back to the future. While the novel contains all the good-natured humour and drawing-room drama readers have come to expect from Willis, it does feel a bit like this was one trip too many to the well. Then again, the duology won both the Hugo and the Nebula for 2010, so what do I know?

In film, I started April with a pair of documentaries: the magnificent, sprawling Jodorowsky's Dune and the sinister, eye-opening Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Both are fine examples of the form, each with a crystal clear message. First, I sure wish that Jodorowsky had filmed his vision of Dune, which may have been the most off-the-wall mindbender of the 20th century, if perhaps not the transcendental experience the director imagined. And second, yes, Scientology is probably as bananas as you might have expected.

Sandwiched between these two documentaries I watched Murder by Death, Robert Moore's 1976 send up of pop culture's greatest detectives. Frankly, I don't remember why I ever thought this was funny; it hasn't aged well.

Paul Verhoven's Hollow Man was simply terrible, with none of the wit or satire of the controversial director's earlier films. This is just a slasher film with decent special effects. Poor Kevin Bacon turns evil simply because he turns invisible, which may have been believable if we'd been given any time at all to see his character fleshed out.

I knew Billy Wilder was a genius, but I really wasn't prepared for Witness for the Prosecution, his 1957 Best Picture-nominated courtroom drama. Wilder packs the film with superb performances from his entire cast, performances entirely essential to perhaps the best twist ending in cinema, a turn so brilliantly executed that I didn't see it coming even though I'd been warned something shocking would happen in the last act. The big reveal in The Sixth Sense has nothing on this, and on top of that you get a well-paced, fascinating murder mystery. This will probably stand as one of my favourite films of the year.

I also watched Wilder's The Seven Year Itch, my first Marilyn Monroe movie - can you imagine, at 46 I finally screen one of these? Anyway, Monroe is as charming as you'd expect, though I'll admit I was a little underwhelmed by the famous skirt-blowing scene. Still, this is a smart, wry little movie and does a great job of getting inside the heads of insecure males of a certain age.

I watched a bunch of 1930s and 1940s crime films in April, thanks mostly to simply working my way through a couple of Warner Brothers box sets. 1937's Black Legion was my favourite of the bunch, thanks mostly to Humphrey Bogart's performance as a working-class white man who falls prey to the (thinly disguised in this film) KKK. It's pretty heartbreaking to see Bogart destroy himself, and the movie packs a powerful punch even now...perhaps especially now, given continuing class and racial unrest in the United States.

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